Every four years, millions of us are glued to our televisions to witness the world’s most elite athletes competing at the pinnacle of their sport in the Summer Olympics. It’s a given that Olympic athletes are born with a certain amount of natural talent, but rarely does one make it to the Games without putting in years of blood, sweat and tears to prepare.
Regardless of whether you aspire to Olympic glory, or simply want to raise your game, here are some tips from Olympians Janelle Parks-Graham and Inga Thompson, teammates on the 1984 Los Angeles Games US Women’s Cycling Team on how to take your fitness to the next level.
Do The Time
“It takes a lot of time, dedication, and perseverance,” says cyclist Janelle Parks-Graham, “and picking your parents well.”
All joking aside, it can take up to eight years of training in a sport before making your first Olympic team. Reaching the Games takes more than lucky genetics – Olympic athletes are born with a certain set of psychological and physiological traits, that include an unwavering commitment to excel, and perhaps most importantly – a devotion to training.
How Do You Get to Carnegie Hall?
The answer is still the same – Practice. Practice. Practice. There’s a reason Olympians make spinning through the air or gliding through the water look effortless – they train every day, sometimes up to 8 hours. Whether you aspire to gold-medal glory, or just quantifiable progress at your own sport, you have to put in the hard work, and not just on the weekends. You also can’t expect to see results overnight. Lasting results take time, effort, and commitment to reaching your goals.
“You can’t sit all week then go hard on the weekends and expect to get world-class fit,” says Parks-Graham. “You’re exposing yourself to injury, too.” Consistency is key in training your mind and body for victory.
No Pain, No Gain
It’s an old cliché, but it still holds true. Part of being an extraordinary athlete is about putting up with pain. Remember gymnast Kerri Strug winning the Gold for her US Women’s Gymnastics Team on a badly injured ankle? Olympians have that intangible inner strength that lets them push through excruciating pain. Strug dug deep – it took her entire life to get to that moment in time, and she wasn’t about to quit. That’s what made her a champion.
That being said, keep in mind, there’s pain that “hurts so good” and other pain you should pay attention to. Training through injury is a balancing act. You have to listen to your body and know that if something feels extremely wrong, then it probably is. Seek therapies like massage, whirlpool baths, acupuncture, medical treatment, or just plain rest when you’re injured. Your body will reward you.
Call it an affirmative form of self-absorption, but athletes need constant feedback about themselves to monitor their progression. Given the plethora of high-tech biofeedback devices available on the market (like MYZONE, wearables and heart rate monitors) it pays to make an investment in one if you’re serious about your own progress.
“I never met a calorie I didn’t like,” quips Thompson. “I was like a furnace when it came to food.”
Olympic athletes are world-class eaters too. Bellying up to the table for a calorie laden meal after a hard day of training is just one of the rewards for all that work. It’s not uncommon for Olympians to consume up to 5,000 calories per day. That’s a lot of food. Just be sure you’re fueling your engine with balanced, calorie and nutrient-rich meals and frequent snacks throughout the day – high-carb meals may be good for a quick energy boost, but a well-balanced nutrition plan is the best way to fuel your body.
Quite possibly the world’s best performance enhancer – and perfectly legit, too. Olympians swear by it. Water.
Your body cannot function without water, and athletes have been known to die from dehydration. If you’re feeling fatigued, lightheaded or your urine is especially dark, you’re dehydrated. Don’t let it get that far or you won’t be standing on any podiums soon.
“Carry water with you everywhere you go, not just while you’re training,” advises Parks-Graham. “Don’t depend on feeling thirsty before reaching for a water bottle, part of your regimen should be to train yourself to constantly hydrate with lots of water – especially during workouts. Skip energy and sugary drinks – these can actually leave you worse off. Take it easy on the booze afterwards, too.”
Hit the Hay
When you train as hard as an Olympic athlete you need your rest – sometimes up to 10 hours a night – with a nice 90-minute nap during the day for good measure. The body rebuilds tissue during sleep, helping grow muscle – and recover from grueling workouts. So, go ahead, hit the hay for peak performance.
What’s the Plan?
Inga Thompson turned to the bicycle as rehab for a running injury before quickly ascending the ranks of cycling elites. It was no accident that Thompson made the Olympic squad after competing in her new sport for barely a year.
“A lifetime of running cross-country allowed me to translate my training plan into cycling,” says Thompson. “Speed work on Monday, distance on Tuesday, etc. I applied a routine and schedule I knew worked for me.”
If your goal is to cycle a century, or run a half marathon in three months – or make the Olympics – find a trusted coach or trainer and create a training plan. Include quantifiable goals or objectives, whether it’s increasing mileage week over week, or shaving seconds off your time. If you mean to medal, it pays to have a plan.
Visualize the Win
When the pressure mounts, a well-prepared athlete will use all the tools in their game bag, including mental. This is where the benefits of preparing – and executing – a training plan come together. Confident they’ve done enough lifting, leaping, speed work or miles, champions employ visualization techniques that provide a road map to their success.
“Visualization allowed me to tune out all the activity and tension prior to a race, and focus on my strategy, tactics and how I wanted to perform,” says Graham-Parks. “It has been my most powerful asset throughout my athletic career.”